Ab Simon, who did more for the popularity and sales of French wine in the United States than anyone in his generation, has passed on at 88.
Ab was a wine trader through and through, and his steadfast commitment and unrelenting efforts to developing Chateau & Estates resulting in his company dominating the imports of fine Bordeaux, Burgundy, and other French wines. The primary influence was on the great growths of Bordeaux, when Seagram’s Chateau & Estates division controlled from 20 to 40% of the Bordeaux futures market in this country.
Ab was one of the old breed, and lovers of wine, and especially French wine, should open a bottle and lift a glass in his honor.
William Grimes wrote a detailed history of Ab in his obituary column:
January 4, 2011
The New York Times
Ab Simon, Chairman of Seagram Wine Unit, Dies at 88By WILLIAM GRIMES
Ab Simon, who as the longtime chairman of the Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines Company was a commanding figure in the American wine trade and a leading importer of fine Bordeaux to the United States, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
The cause was complications of heart disease, his wife, Francine, said.
Mr. Simon, an Iraqi who found his way into the wine business after emigrating to the United States, was recruited by the Bronfman family in 1974 to establish a fine-wine division for its giant distilled spirits company, Joseph Seagram & Sons.
Mr. Simon, reasoning that the new division would be selling chateau wines from Bordeaux and estate wines from Burgundy, the Rhone and the Loire, proposed the name Chateau & Estate. The company added “Seagram” 10 years later.
He started off with a blank slate. “When I came to Seagram’s, there was no office, no secretary, no employees,” he told The New York Times in 1988. “They gave me Mumm’s to sell to pay the rent and $2 million to buy wine.”
From that, Mr. Simon built Chateau & Estate into a powerful force in the wine market. Known as a gentlemanly dealer who relied on handshakes and first names, he bypassed the old middlemen, known as négociants, who had dominated the Bordeaux trade for centuries, and struck deals with chateau owners directly. As a consequence, he was able to influence prices as no other American importer ever had.
In the division’s first full year of business, revenue was $3 million on shipments of 80,000 cases. In 1987, it reported sales of $80 million on shipments of 900,000 cases.
By the late 1980s, Chateau & Estate imported about a third of the production of Bordeaux’s top wineries — a figure that rose to 40 percent in peak years — and about 20 percent of the five “first growths,” with their fabled names like Margaux and Latour.
Abdallah Hay Simon was born on Dec. 6, 1922, in Baghdad, the son of a textile merchant who spent much of his time in Britain doing business with mills in the Midlands. He attended Southport College, a private school near Manchester, and in 1940 earned a business and economics degree from the American University of Beirut.
After serving in the Iraqi army, Mr. Simon, whose family was Jewish, became increasingly alarmed at the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. In 1944, he left with his older brother for the United States, where he was almost immediately drafted into the Army. He completed Officer Candidate School and went to Germany at the end of 1945, assigned to a military police unit.
On returning to New York after the war, he went to work for a textile company that his brother had started, and married Francine Iny. In addition to his wife, he is survived by their two sons, Jamil, of Manhattan, and Michael, of Fort Kent, Me.; two sisters, Rachel Sopher, of Geneva, and Juliette Elias, of Manhattan; and a grandchild.
Mr. Simon’s introduction to wine came aboard the Queen Elizabeth, where he found himself sitting next to four businessmen at dinner. “It was suggested we each buy the wine for one of the five nights we’d be at sea,” he told The Times. “I didn’t know one from the other, and someone suggested Latour ’29. One taste of that wine and I was smitten.”
After placing a want ad in the newspaper, he was contacted by R. U. Delapenha, a small food and wine importer, and hired as an inventory clerk at $60 a week. By 1962, he was the company’s president.
After the company was bought by Heublein three years later, he joined Austin, Nichols, a venerable importer and distributor, which was eager to build up its wine division. There he acquired the nickname Ab, conferred by an executive who worried that the company’s many Jewish clients would react negatively to an Arab name.
It was at Austin, Nichols that Mr. Simon began approaching chateau owners directly. He got off to an auspicious start, striking up a strong relationship with the celebrated Château d’Yquem.
Soon after, he scored a coup by acquiring 1,100 cases of first-growth Bordeaux from the 1959 vintage being sold off by the Cunard Lines, which was discontinuing the Atlantic service of the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. This attention-grabbing deal led to Austin, Nichols’s becoming the leading importer of estate-bottled wines from Bordeaux.
At Seagram, Mr. Simon took advantage of a depressed wine market to acquire all of Austin, Nichols’s inventory as well as the inventory of other importers and distributors. He cultivated relationships with several European wine producers who had cast their lot with Seagram, and he stuck with them when the market rebounded. Mr. Simon also built a strong business in Champagnes, elevating Perrier-Jouët to a leading position, and in the wines of Alsace, especially those of Trimbach.
Mr. Simon retired from Seagram in 2003.
“The economics of the wine business have some wonderful aspects,” Mr. Simon said in an interview for “Vintage Years,” a memoir published privately in 2009. Yes, there are down years, but, as he pointed out, “the wine gets better with age and increases in value, and there’s also less available, which makes it even more valuable.”
This he pronounced “a very happy circumstance indeed.”
Donations in Ab’s name may be made to the Tel Aviv Foundation: www.TelAvivFoundation.org Donations should be earmarked for “The Abdallah and Francine Simon Early Childhood Center.” The Foundation’s NY offices are at
Tel Aviv Foundation
New York, NY 10001